*Editorial note: this piece contains spoilers for Top Boy.
Season 3 of Top Boy is finally on Netflix. Yes, it was worth the wait!
Top Boy is a crime drama that tells the magnetic story of drug dealers Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson) as they battle to maintain dominance over the drug trade in Hackney, East London, UK. The series is set in the fictional low-income Summerhouse estate where their lives intertwine with other unforgettable characters. The astounding success of the first two seasons is due to the series' fast-paced storytelling and character casting, including a young Letitia Wright as Chantelle, and an impressive newcomer, Shone Romulus (who was cast while hanging outside the flats at Hackney), as Dris. The combination of a naturalistic setting and believable characters lays an unpretentious canvas for social realism, without becoming preachy. The series was unexpectedly canceled six years ago after two seasons, but was revived by superfan, multi-award-winning rapper, and global Black culture devotee, Drake, who is also the show’s executive producer.
In the past two seasons, while battling to be the "top boys" in the drug dealing business, Dushane and Sully leave a bloody trail from territorial wars with other drug dealers and are in relentless conflicts with the police. Though Dushane often outmaneuvers the forces against him and Sully, the events of Season 2 are too fast and insidious even for him. The last time we saw them, Dushane and Sully went into a David vs. Goliath war with the Albanians who stole their drugs. As a result, Sully was arrested and Dushane fled the country following the jarring death of his recruit Michael (Xavien Russell) at the hands of the Albanians.
As we head into the newest season, it seems the weather is cold and tensions are just as high in Hackney. The jackets and hoodies are back, and so are our beloved anti-heroes Dushane and Sully. Dushane returns from two years in exile in Jamaica and Sully from spending time in jail in London. With everything falling out of place for them, life has scrubbed them hard, laying bare their yearning for success, respect and, for Sully, the desire to be a father that his daughter would be proud of. Yet no matter what divergent paths they take, all the roads seem to lead back to Summerhouse. This time, while both bearing targets from their past transgressions, they return to find a new “top boy” in young Jamie (Michael Ward) and his pervasive Zero Tolerance (ZT) gang. However, the rules of “on the road,” as they call the drug dealing business, are unchanged--dominate or die.
Ronan Bennett’s writing in this third season continues to be honest, with an even higher dose of drama over the ten episodes (up from the previous four episodes per season) available to him this season. Our beloveds, like their audience, have grown. The passage of time is explicit, as shown by Dris and Dushane comparing their “old man” tummy sizes, and Jason (fan favorite Ricky Smarts), the little troublemaker, is now a man. The first episodes take us through our antiheroes’ journeys which are long but not wasted. Exile breeds shame in Dushane, who is embarrassed to be working at his uncle’s car rental, while prison brings perspective to Sully, who wants to start a new life away from "the road."
In the opening episodes, we leave East London to visit Dushane in Jamaica, and when Sully gets out of prison, we accompany him to the seaside town of Ramsgate. In no other season of Top Boy have we left London. Both excursions are a cinematography treat and wrought with social commentary (deserved applause to directors Reinaldo Marcus Green and Nia DaCosta). Jamaica is not just reggae and beaches and Ramsgate is not safe for immigrants. Inevitably, the two make their way back to Summerhouse. The atmosphere here is different now, it is centered around different types of family units, and the gangs are younger, populous and their actions are significantly more random. For example, take the fight between the ZT and a rival gang. It begins on the street and ends at the hospital ER, just not in the way you would think. On the street, the ZT confront the rival gang, obscenities are shouted, baseball bats are swung onto bodies, knives cut the air, someone is stabbed, multiple fists fly around and clothes are grabbed. Then, the fight ends suddenly, with no clear winner. Immediately after, the two gangs find themselves at the same hospital ER, and the fight erupts again. This time bystanders are shouting while the hospital beds and other patients’ bodies are used as weapons and shields. Then, the fight ends again with no conclusion. Those scenes are Top Boy season 3 clusterf**k realism at its greatest; disorganized, dangerous and accurate.
One of the best aspects of the series is that the dialogue of the characters is natural to the point of being tenacious. It would be hard for anyone who has watched the show to stereotype the London accent as the singular “cuppa tea” dialect. We hear clear influences from Jamaica, “Wagwan!” in greetings, and subtle ones from the US, “I ain’ neva...” in speech, laid over an urban British accent, letting us know there is more going on in London than we are exposed to. Top Boy’s London is a global hub that uses voice, accent and tone to bring home important wider topics of gentrification, immigration, racism and xenophobia.
A deserved nod to the courage of those in the writing room for engaging with these difficult topics in a nuanced way. Especially in the fifth episode when Sully, who is in deep grief over his friend Jason’s horrific death, which happens as the result of a hate crime, returns to Ramsgate to avenge him. But he has no one to target since he never saw the perpetrator. Sully walks the street a haunted man. He arrives at the bar where a racist man in a red hat had hurled racial slurs at him before. He sees the same man, waits for him to leave, then stalks him down an alley. “Do you remember this brown face?” Sully finally speaks before beating the man, probably to death. Viewers may not agree with Sully, but like him, we are pregnant with the importance of this scene and his delivery of the moment. Violence is not out of character for Sully, who violently retaliates against Jason’s stepdad for beating Jason, during the second season. So, this moment is about the context. We are gently nudged to understand the character context and their choices without necessarily agreeing with them.
Then there is the gift of brotherly love, family, friendship and gang loyalty, adding to the shows brilliance. Every man or boy has a man or boy who loves him and openly shows it. This keeps the audience tuned in to their humanity despite the circumstances. It’s not often that a show based on drug dealing criminals shows men being outwardly vulnerable, including giving in to tears of loss and confusion. Dushane cries, Jamie cries and Sully cries. It’s powerful. We are routing for all three of them at once. The women of the series, though their stories are an aside, are powerful too, without many tears. Jaq (Jasmine Jobson), who is in Dushane’s gang, is the wisest on the street yet vulnerable to her sister. Farah (Seraphina Beh), a member of the ZT gang, is the fearless urban dictionary definition of “on sight!” Meaning, she is willing to fight anyone, anywhere and at any time. Her only fault is trusting the gang leaders more than she trusts herself. There is also the beautiful Shelly (Simbiatu 'Little Simz' Ajikawo), Dushane’s mother’s caretaker, who is ideological but easily drops her ideals for Dushane. The contrast between characters is one of the aspects that makes the show so refreshing.
Despite all of the great characters, an underdeveloped character is Jamie’s new Irish drug supplier, Lizzie (Lisa Dwan). She brags about her tough experiences in Ireland and around the world yet makes rookie mistakes, like having sex with Jamie at the store when he comes to pay her. Because there is no depth behind her motives or aspirations, everything she does seems out of character and forgettable. Even her desire isn’t obvious, so the sex with Jamie is awkward and includes her suddenly throwing in a racial trope. She informs Jamie that as a Black man, he is only good for drug dealing and sex.
The children, Jamie’s younger brother Stef (Araloyin Oshunremi) and his Summerhouse best friend Ats (Keiyon Cook), are easily the heart of the show. The two provide the definitive plot turn and just make the show lighter with the joys and trials of their relationship. One key moment is the unforgettable scene in Episode 9, which brought out a universal gasp in every home of the African and the African diaspora watching the show, when disillusioned and angry, Ats screams at his mum, “Get out my f**king way!” How the motherly hellfire of Lucifer and the floods of Noah did not reign down on that child tells me we are indeed living in strange times. That said, watching Ats break bad is heartbreaking. His innocent efforts to help his mum, who has been fired due to immigration laws and now faces eviction, escalates steadily from selling burgers made with Steph to stealing lunch from other kids’ bags to working for Dushane’s gang. This culminates in his final act where he begrudgingly betrays Steph by setting Jamie up to be arrested for Jaq’s bidding.
Though there are stellar moments, a significant writing gap in the series is the blatant absence of the law. Yes, we see the law connection at the end of the season, but there was a full-on drug war on those streets. Weapons were moving, shots were fired in daylight and a lot of bodies were lying on the road. How were there no investigators or police raids or lockdowns? This seemed unrealistic.
Also missing from the series was sex. Well, good sex. Where are the redeeming moments of tenderness and lovemaking between beautiful Black people? Sex is mostly implied, except for the brief weak sex scene between Lizzie and Jamie, which falls flat as the movements are unnatural and there is no desire, with Jamie looking everywhere else but at his sexual partner before he remembers to briefly climax. It is disappointingly far from the covetous sex between Dushane and his solicitor Rhianna (Lorraine Burroughs) in Season 2.
The pièce de résistance in Season 3 is Kano. In the first and second seasons, he is believable as Sully but in Season 3 he fully embodies the character. This season the character is given more breadth in the writing and direction, offering Kano an opportunity to dig deeper and become a fully realized Sully--forlorn, fearless and gravely ruminative. Kano rises to the occasion in every scene. Sully’s cumulative traumas (self-imposed and otherwise), and the speed at which the life of a "roadman" changes, have left him little room to express himself in language. The role requires wordless expression delivered through the camera’s close focus on his face. Kano proves himself a learned master of screaming without sound; the eyes frozen open and taking sudden breaths between subtle clenching of his jaw sounds an alarm. In all his scenes, his body language (tiptoeing when he meets aggression, pausing then slightly shaking his head and pulling up his shoulders before he speaks, swaying constantly, slouching and disappearing into his seat) is perfection enhanced by beautiful cinematography to tell the story of the consequences of a life of crime.
Even with this being the best season yet, I am not particularly eager for a fourth season. Though the cliffhanger of the two junkies being undercover investigators all along is intriguing, the themes in the past three seasons tell us that there is no redemption forecasted for our beloveds. Jason is dead, Dris is dead (or is he?), Ats betrayed Steph, Dushane and Sully have fallen out (again!), the law is onto Dushane and Jamie refuses to work for Dushane. It is going to be too difficult to watch their undoing. Perhaps Sully foreshadows all of their lives when he says about Jason, “That kid never had no luck.”
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